Homeowners must prepare for bushfire: A harsh reality of Australian bushland living. Photo: Wolter Peeters
It is the Australian dream for many. Within commuting distance to a city, pristine bushland at the back door.
But with that dream comes a serious risk for hundreds of thousands of people who live where fires burn.
Sydney’s fire threat is very real and we are paying for past mistakes. There is no doubt that if we were planning the city today, governments and planners would make different decisions about where to allow development.
It would be easy to point the blame at past poor planning decisions for the risk now facing Sydney.
But the reality is Sydney is surrounded by highly flammable bushland, the perfect environment for extreme fire zones, and there are many areas well away from bushland that are still vulnerable.
The fire risk to the Blue Mountains is well known but some of the city’s most popular areas are also some of the most bushfire prone.
Ku-ring-gai has the highest proportion of homes near bushland in metropolitan Sydney, while more than one in four homes in the Sutherland shire is built on bushfire-prone land.
The NSW Rural Fire Service’s latest figure show 200,000 homes are in the most dangerous areas of the city – that is they are built within 100 metres of bush. But past experience shows that distance is not a saviour.
Yet despite the widespread risk across Sydney, fire experts still despair that residents who make the decision to live in fire zones such as Ku-ring-gai, Hornsby or Pittwater are complacent and suffer ”bush blindness”.
Academics use the term bush blindness to describe people’s ignorance; they see the bush but ignore its risks.
This is one of the biggest fire threats facing Sydney. Repeated messages to prepare for a fire – physically and mentally – are often ignored. People do not have fire plans, they do not clear out gutters, they allow debris to build.
The Victorian government introduced no-go building zones in the wake of the Black Saturday fires of 2009 which prevent housing developments in certain bushfire-prone areas.
These exemptions do not exist in NSW, mainly because the damage has largely been done – we are already living in most of the dangerous areas.
Councils have been required to map bushfire-prone land since 2002 and new homes built in these areas must meet tight building controls.
But councils are not required to follow up on these measures once the approval is given.
The onus is on the home owner.
Living in bushland provides an idyllic existence to many that no government would want to restrict.
But with the decision to live in a bushfire-prone area comes a huge responsibility. Residents must acknowledge the risks and be prepared for the worst or else they put themselves and others in a potentially deadly posiition.